The other night, I watched a movie about a selfish, devil-may-care genius who suddenly ends up injured and helpless. As a result, he discovers the importance of helping others, and becomes a flamboyant, flying superhero persona — all while aided by a powerful energy source glowing from his chest.
The funny thing is, the movie didn’t star Robert Downey, Jr.
It’s pretty old hat at this point to critique the bland, general sameness that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Similar origin stories, similar world-ending stakes and glowering villains, similar “Hey gang, isn’t this fun?” teasers to cap every film. We've reached the point where it’s considered daring innovation to simply incorporate a mildly different tone (Ant-Man) or a sarcastic, space-opera vibe (Guardians of the Galaxy), but given the amount of cultural momentum that Marvel’s world has, that’s largely been enough to keep audiences coming back. Now for one more drink from the well comes the Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle Doctor Strange. It’s a visual departure, full of trippy effects sequences, and informed by an open-armed embrace of the fantastical elements of Marvel’s comic-book empire. But is set-dressing enough when the core story is so painfully familiar?
Benedict Cumberbatch (solid, though not spectacular) plays the titular Doctor Stephen Strange. He’s an arrogant, bordering-on-cruel surgeon who is nevertheless respected due to his incredible physical dexterity and skill. And in the great tradition of fictional medical-genius assholes, noble friends like Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer stick with him in spite of his egotistic antics. But one night, Strange goes barreling through a treacherous switchback in his Lamborghini and causes a brutal crash that destroys his hands, and with them, his career and reason for living.
Desperate for a cure at any cost, Strange ends up in Nepal at Kamar-Taj, home to The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystic who reveals to him that the world contains much more than what science can explain. There is mystical power, magic, and a never-ending series of dimensions folding upon themselves, she says, and by reaching beyond the known world to the Multiverse, Strange can discover more than he ever thought possible. The doctor struggles at first, but when a former student of The Ancient One’s named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) goes rogue with a forbidden spell, Strange is drawn into a battle with the fate of Earth hanging in the balance.
Still with me? I hope so, because I haven’t even gone into some of the more out-there concepts Doctor Strange tries to tackle. A character named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a magical Cloak of Levitation, something called The Eye of Agamotto… you’re best suited reading Kwame Opam’s Doctor Strange explainer before heading to the theater, because the movie itself doesn’t put much effort into setting up the majority of these ideas. It just tosses them out there, confident that hardcore Marvel fans will recognize them at first glance — and judging from the audience I saw the film with, that’s a solid bet — but it can make for a confusing,Warcraft-style labyrinth of terms and concepts for the uninitiated.
Scott Derrickson's direction pulls the film together in spite of the dense mythology. He's mostly known for genre efforts like Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil, but in Doctor Strange, Derrickson delivers a psychedelic phantasmagoria that's totally unprecedented in his body of work. Strange trips through the Multiverse (I actually wondered what Kubrick would have done with 2001’s Star Gate sequence if he’d had 3-D), tumbles through walls during an astral-projection brawl, and fights across a massive city landscape that’s splitting, folding, and twirling in upon itself. The supercharged visuals go on and on. There are plenty of references on display — moments in the city sequences feel like scenes cut from Inception — but they’re nevertheless imaginative new terrain for both the filmmaker and Marvel, which has largely struggled to bring any kind of new aesthetic to its portfolio, aside from the ‘70s-inspired grit of the recent Captain America films.
Even with the visual grandeur, however, there’s an underlying sense that Marvel isn’t entirely sure audiences are ready for the far-out concepts it’s introducing. The next stage of Marvel films will go all-in on the big-bad Thanos and the ultra-powerful Infinity Stones (we break them down here), and that level of pure comic bookiness will be a jump from the relatively grounded approach Marvel’s original slate of films took. Doctor Strange is no doubt meant to help bridge that transition by setting up the weirder aspects of the world, but at times, the movie seems insecure about its own bizarro tendencies.
It’s seen throughout the film, from the vague motivations of Mads Mikkelsen’s generic baddie to the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. (That decision was influenced by fears of the ethnic stereotyping associated with the original character, and by a squeamishness about acknowledging a Tibetan hero and potentially alienating the Chinese market. Still, the choice inevitably looks like cultural whitewashing.) But that insecurity is most exemplified by an awkward strain of pop-culture humor that feels absolutely shoehorned into the film. The Eminem and Beyoncé references just feel desperate and needy.
Which is a shame, because Doctor Strange is at its most entertaining when it’s unapologetically different from anything Marvel has done before. Without getting into spoilers, there’s a sequence toward the end of the film that's outright stunning, both in conception and execution. It’s a type of cerebral climax that the studio would simply never have attempted five years ago, and the fact that it works so well is a testament to the larger vision Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill have for this character and this universe.
At its best when it's unlike anything Marvel has attempted before
Perhaps it’s just that there's a little too much Marvel Studios in Doctor Strange, when the strongest thing about the film are the filmmakers hired to bring it to life. The company has set the template for modern blockbusters, with practically every studio in Hollywood adopting its shared-universe strategy. A large part of that success has been due to the diligent, careful orchestration that connects all the films. But we’ve seen Tony Stark’s origin story before; we’ve seen Ant-Man. We know that formula works. And when it's repeated year after year, that’s what it becomes: a tired formula. Marvel stepping outside its comfort zone in terms of tone and approach is a good start, but the studio will have to start doing the same thing with the structure of its stories, otherwise its Cinematic Universe will collapse upon itself, no matter how pretty the visual effects. Marvel should be commended for figuring out that it needs to open the portal to a richer, more varied world of movies for its long-term success. In the future, it just needs to step through.